Power: Is This Any Way to Clean Up the City?

Ethics watchdog Shane Creamer has slapped the hands of Philly power brokers like Johnny Doc. But are his bark and bite as vicious as they should be?

CREAMER, WHO IS 47, says his job is just to enforce the rules. If politicians want new laws that kneecap paperwork malefactors, they can write them. But the board’s mandate also gives it the authority to suggest new laws. And its independent status represents a bully pulpit from which Creamer, its handsome public face, could thunder against even the non-illegal outrages that rile up locals. That, alas, is an opportunity he declines as fast as my offer to pay for lunch.

“There are many things that public officials can say or do to undermine public confidence in government that we can’t punish them for,” he says. “And we also don’t have the ability to make pronouncements or express opinions or cast judgment in a public way about things outside our jurisdiction. It would be inappropriate.”

Stoking public fury, like being taken to the Palm, is someone else’s job.

Creamer learned early that politics can be rough on guys in Brooks Brothers suits who talk about cleaning things up. His father was named Attorney General under Governor Milton Shapp. J. Shane Creamer Sr. wanted to use the job to take on dirty cops back in Philly. But he wound up in a turf war with the state police commissioner, whose local allies were wary of those plans. The feud ended in late 1972, when the commissioner’s aides wiretapped the elder Creamer’s staff. The governor forced out both officials. “I didn’t have a political base,” Shane Sr., now mostly retired from practicing law, says today. “I wasn’t there for politics. I was just trying to deal with things that I’d seen in my career as a federal prosecutor. You proceed at your peril without your political base.”

Shane Jr. says the affair made him leery of politics. A track standout at Gettysburg College, he went on to Villanova Law and became a partner at Duane Morris. When he finally landed in government — he was bored with big firm practice — his focus was education policy, far from the ultimate-fighting ring that is local politics. As a guy whose affect suggests a popular young rector at an august boarding school, and whose weekend plans generally involve the 42-foot sailboat at his family’s Chesapeake country house, Creamer still seems a bit out of place now that his job occasionally requires him to enter that ring. “I think there are those that may underestimate him,” says Phil Goldsmith, the city’s former managing director. “His core is very solid. He’s not going to bow to pressure.”

The current Philadelphia Board of Ethics was a reaction to John Street’s scandal-plagued second term. Having moved over from his job with Street’s education secretary, Creamer had been the board’s top staffer — well, its only staffer — back in its previous incarnation, when members served at the mayor’s pleasure and were scarcely empowered to wag their fingers. A 2006 charter change, championed by future mayor Michael Nutter, made it an autonomous body with the power to investigate, fine, and make life difficult for anyone who ran afoul of the city’s juiced-up ethics rules.